Monday, March 20, 2023

[Opinion] “A Fortress of Protection” – Why Places Like The Hershee Bar Are Vital to Our Community

In the Hampton Roads LGBT community of the 80s and 90s, there were few safe spaces for a young lesbian like me. It was an oppressed culture in an age where we had to be extremely careful to whom we revealed ourselves. Not everyone knew a person or home they could go to in a crisis. We were in need of a safe space—that place where everyone not only knew your name but knew who you were.

For many of us, the Hershee Bar was that space. Right down to the brick and mortar itself, it was a fortress of protection for young, lost lesbians trying to figure out what it all meant. 

During my difficult pre-teen and early adolescent years, I attended Norview Middle. I walked or rode my bike to school, and each day I passed by that grey building, wondering what it was like inside. I knew what it was, and I knew I belonged there. In my mind, it was already a bit of a safe place during those years of harassment and hate. 

During that time, I endured one epic “best friend” breakup that was filled with hurt and anger. My Mom didn’t get it.

“Friends come and go,” she said. “Find another friend.”

Honestly, at 11 years old, I didn’t fully get it myself.  I didn’t understand why losing a friend felt like the end of the world. Later I did, but in that moment, I had no one to help me sort it out. I rode my bike to HBs, got brave, and sat with my back against the sun warmed wall. I added the first of many of my tears to the asphalt in the parking lot. I confessed my rage to the bricks. Even if no one else got it, I knew the spirit of that place did.

When I was 13, I was sexually assaulted. The demon in altar boy’s clothing made me ride my bike home. I couldn’t sit on the seat, so I pedaled standing up. How the hell could I go home like that?  I felt like the shame of it was written on my face.

I pedaled through the neighborhoods to Hershee that evening. Ladies were coming and going. I leaned against the wall and watched the women confidently stride in: tough chicks, girls who looked like they would never let anything like that happen to them. They wore the armor of doc martens, flannel, and wallet chains. Riot grrrl shirts, leather jackets, and punk hair made them unapproachable, safe, protected.

A couple girls asked me if I was ok. I think they would have let me in had I asked. I went behind the dumpster, took off my bloodstained panties, threw them away, and rode home on my bike seat. The experience of seeing those in control women come and go confidently through the door to Hershee’s helped me decide for myself what pain I would and would not feel.

After that, I felt I had a niche in my culture, a look, a bravado to protect me from any evil in the world, from predators to discrimination. The Doc Martens and leather jacket I bought carried me though a lot of discrimination, hate, and bullshit as I grew into a woman.

My freshman year at Norview High, I spent a lot of time at a pool hall across the street from HBs. Sometimes, between evening games, I’d sit on the curb where I could see the back entrance. I would watch the girls and bois coming and going, laughing, sometimes kissing. It was mesmerizing. I’d sing along with the raspy female voices I’d hear emanating from inside: Melissa, Alanis, Gwen. A few regulars got to know me and handed me a smoke or a beer they had to finish before walking in. But still, I didn’t go in. It wasn’t time.

By my sophomore year of high school, I had moved across town and attended Lake Taylor. I had my first girlfriend, and I was confidently out as bi—better known as “gay light” for 90s girls to safely transition into their lesbian identity by being cool and fun first. I owned two Melissa tapes. Life was perfect!

One day, my girlfriend passed me a note as usual between classes. We wrote them in a made-up code so we wouldn’t get busted saying mushy things to each other. This letter was in English, and its message was unmistakable. It was a dump note, and as I read it, I neither saw nor heard anything else going around me. I was destroyed.

After who knows how long, I calmly gathered my stuff and started walking, right out the door, all the way to her house. I had my first ugly lesbian break up scream-cry-hug-kiss-beg-cuss-fight. And afterwards, I went to HBs.

I decided that even if our relationship wasn’t right for her, it was for me. I wanted to claim it in some tangible, outward way. There in the parking lot, I used my pocket knife to carve a female symbol on my hip. That night, for a second time, I spilled my heart onto the asphalt behind HBs. Four years later, I turned the scar into a real tattoo of two interlocking female symbols.

My freshman year of college, on Christmas break, my mother decided she was ready to know my truth after a viewing of In and Out and some serious coffee talk.  It went well, and I was delightfully shocked.  The following day, I found a letter from her on my pillow accusing me of ruining her life and her Christmas, then detailing the reasons I was really not gay.

I was a wreck, and I sought solace in the only place I knew was safe. This time, I didn’t hesitate. I busted through the doors like a gangster in an old west movie and pulled up a bar stool with all the confidence of a collegiate who had employed her NY fake ID only once. 

“Whatcha havin, kid?,” a bespectacled, pony tailed, serious face asked.

Hand on my fake ID, I choked completely. “Sprite”, I stammered. 

About four Sprites later, the woman I now know and love as Bert had made me feel a thousand times better. 

That’s about the time I met Annette. I was impressed and in awe.  She was (and is) a well put together, articulate, clearly savvy, business woman in charge of her life and her establishment. I watched the way her employees and patrons revered her, and I learned a bit about the kind of woman I wanted to be. 

She sat with me that night for a good while.  It was like having a conversation with my foster Mom–real talk, but with the bonus of speaking to an adult who knew exactly how I felt in that turbulent moment of coming out and coping with familial rejection. 

As Annette predicted, Mom wised up, and became a fierce supporter of who I am. Annette Stone became a second foster Mom to me, an advisor in many respects through the stupidity of my early 20’s, my heartbreaks, my first years as a mother, my professional meanderings, my battle with breast cancer, the forming of my non-profit Kitten Rescue, and finally, the stability of my thirties and family of six. 

She was an instrumental part of my wedding to my soulmate and has remained a spiritual advisor since that night in 1998.  She is a mentor, both professionally and personally.

None of that would not have been possible without HBs. That building has seen me grow like a kid on a 20 year-long sitcom.

I am not alone in that. The 35th anniversary celebration held at HBs a month ago was a huge family reunion. Hundreds of women (and men) came and went throughout the night, sharing their stories, many like mine, about their experiences within those walls. We spoke of the many little secrets the giant painting of Mellissa and KD on the wall had witnessed; we recalled the legacies scrawled and painted over on the bathroom walls; we celebrated the many therapists who have poured drinks and love over the years; and we payed homage to the matriarch who provided this safe space, this place to be family. 

Had we known the end was near that night, I expect there would have been more tears than laughter. But I’m glad we had the night as it was. Now we remember everything that building provided to a small community that was (and still is) so desperately in need of a home. 

We will mourn the loss of the original structure and get in as many last visits as we can.  I’m making sure that our young, out daughter sees the original place, plays the claw machine, and breathes in an atmosphere of comfort and creativity at least once before it is gone. 

Gone, but never forgotten.  It will be kept alive in memories, pictures, words, and hearts, and rebuilt anew in a new location, without a doubt. 

I know my Mom will not allow a world with no Hershee Bar.  Nor will I.


A resident of Great Bridge, Becca Ostman is a local writer, St. Lawrence University alumni, wife and mother of four, Merchant Marine Captain of Old Dominion University’s R/V Fay Slover, and executive director of Billy the Kidden Rescue, a 501c3 non-profit kitten and cat rescue.


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